Ever since George Monbiot spoke about rewilding, it has attracted a stream of attention from not just conservationists, but community campaigners and the mainstream media. Monbiot called upon the public to “make Britain wild again” and his message was not just limited to the U.K.1 As a respected international columnist, his thoughts spread across continents and made people sit up and listen about the potential that rewilding has.
Over the last 20 years or so, there have been some very successful and bold rewilding projects, as well as some that have failed. Highlighted below are some inspirational and incredible projects that have worked towards rewilding forests, oceans, and mountains.
Rewilding the Mountains
The Northern Apennines are full of abandoned settlements and agricultural areas. In recent years, there have been efforts to rewild those areas, supporting the regrowth of grassland to conserve human history, but also rewilding the mountains to undo some urbanization.2
This conflict, where some want to preserve the grasslands and evidence of prior agriculture, while others want to allow shrubs and woodland to return, is an interesting paradox that can be seen playing out all over Italy.
Over the last 11 years, the amount of grassland in Italy’s national parks has fallen dramatically, showing that where rewilding efforts are allowed to take place, they are broadly successful. When woodland is allowed to grow back, with it comes to a whole new range of flora and fauna and new life for the mountains.
For the most part, mountains are relatively untouched by humans compared to other areas of land because they are not the first parts that are settled by humans. Working to reduce damage caused by tourists and to keep trails clean and clear of debris are more common than projects to rewild mountains. This is one area where standard conservation efforts are often sufficient to maintain diversity.
Rewilding the Oceans
Most rewilding projects focus on rivers, woodlands, marshlands, and other terrestrial areas. Ocean rewilding efforts have been minimal by comparison, but they do happen. Over the last few years, there has been a major loss of seagrass and oysters, and researchers have been looking at ways to bring this population back up.3
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In addition to that work, there are ongoing projects looking at ways to support transplanted seagrass with biodegradable plastics and ways of cleaning coastal waters and supporting the populations of Atlantic cod that are currently being over-fished.4
Given that shark biomass is down by 93 percent from historical baselines, efforts to rewild the oceans are long overdue.5 Cutting down on the use of plastics, microbeads, and other pollutants is an important part of preserving the seas and oceans.
Rewilding the Forests
Many of the high profile rewilding projects are taking place in and around forests. One particularly interesting project involves the rewilding of an ancient woodland in Scotland. The project is a part of a Europe-wide initiative to give endangered species their natural habitats back.6
The Cairngorms were once a vast and lush forest, but they were stripped down for timber and much of the land was cleared for farming, leaving just a few small islands of greenery in a barren landscape. The Endangered Landscapes Program hopes to undo that damage and to also repair many other ecosystems in Europe.7
A Long-Term Initiative
Rewilding is a long-term project, not something that can be accomplished in a couple of years with the expectation of quick rewards from a project that can just be forgotten about. It is important that rewilding efforts are monitored carefully, and that while humans mostly allow nature to take its course, they are ready to take control if the efforts were misguided.
Those who are against rewilding hold up the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in Holland as an example of how rewilding can go terribly wrong.8 The nature reserve was created in 1986, but a lack of predators meant that the population of konick horses, deer, and heck cattle grew unchecked. The land was not able to produce enough food to support the populations, and many of the animals starved before the government stepped in to cull the population.
The problem with that project was that the area of land set aside was small, just 21 square miles. Additionally, the land was fenced off, so the animals could not migrate, and there were no predators to keep the population in check. Rewilding the oceans or mountains would play out rather differently and indeed researchers have more awareness now of the importance of predators and how to avoid situations like the one in Oostvaardersplassen.
Even so, rewilding has turned into an ideological debate.9 Do humans have the right to reintroduce species—especially proxy species—into areas where they do not currently have a presence? Should humans be trying to turn back the clock on landscapes or should simply be moving on?
It’s clear that humans have contributed a lot to the loss of biodiversity on Earth. Furthermore, science now has the tools and the power to undo some of that damage. When rewilding is done properly, it can stop erosion, support biodiversity in oceans, combat forest fires, and bring diversity back to our landscapes. It is an incredible tool.
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